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Laura Dorr is the executive editor of DPR's Modern Dental Network.
Even the greatest leaders can’t be perfect. In George Washington’s case, one big shortcoming was his infamously terrible teeth. Equally infamous, Washington’s wooden dentures have become the stuff of legend… a factually incorrect legend, as Washington never actually sported dentures made from wood.
Washington had his first tooth removed at age 24, and it was all downhill from there. By the time he became president in 1789, he had only one remaining tooth, a bicuspid in his lower jaw. He held onto that tooth for just another seven years, before it was eventually removed by Dr. John Greenwood in 1796. Over the course of his life, Washington had numerous sets of dentures and partial dentures – none of which were ever made of wood.
Even during Washington’s lifetime, better materials than wood were available for dentures. Washington’s dentures were composed of materials including human teeth; bone and ivory from hippopotamus, elephants and walrus; and fixtures made of lead, brass screws and gold metal wire. Since many of these materials are susceptible to staining, it is possible that the myth of Washington’s wood teeth emerged from staining and cracks that resulted in the dentures having a wooden coloration and texture – staining that may have occurred due to Washington’s penchant for dark wines.
In addition to ivory and bone from animals, Washington also kept a collection of his own pulled teeth for potential use in his dentures. At one point, he also purchased several human teeth from African-Americans, though his intent regarding these teeth is not definitively known. Washington’s constant struggle with ill-fitting and uncomfortable dentures led to trouble with speech, and altered the shape of his face, leading to several well-recognized portraits in which his jaw appears distended or misshapen.
His trouble getting dentures that fit well also led to what essentially amounted to a mail-order relationship with Dr. Greenwood: Between 1790 and 1799, the two sent boxes of dentures and false teeth back and forth to one another, often accompanied with complaint-filled letters from Washington regarding the discomfort the dentures caused.
Check out this interesting video about Washington’s dentures from George Washington’s Mount Vernon:
Information for this article was gathered from “Drilling holes in George Washington’s wooden teeth myth,” published in the Journal of American Revolution, and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Denture photo credit: George Washington’s Mount Vernon.